Colorado reform law ends immunity for police in civil misconduct cases

FILE PHOTO: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis speaks at his midterm election night party in Denver

(This June 19 story has been refiled to correct date of Floyd's death to May 25 in paragraph 6, from March 25)

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado Governor Jared Polis on Friday signed into law a bill to remove the shield of legal immunity that has long protected police officers from civil suits for on-the-job misconduct, a measure civil libertarians hailed as landmark legislation.

The Colorado state legislature passed the sweeping police accountability bill last week in the wake of nationwide protests over unfair treatment of racial minorities by law enforcement, sparked by the death of an unarmed Black man under the knee of a white Minneapolis policeman last month.

Polis, a first-term Democrat, took the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, celebrating the abolition of slavery in the United States, to formally enact the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union hailed enactment of the measure, saying Colorado became one of the first states in the nation to strip police officers of a legal defense known as qualified immunity. The ACLU called the police accountability law as a whole historic.

The statute additionally requires police agencies statewide to adopt the use of body-worn cameras by their officers within three years, and bans choke holds by officers in restraining individuals.

Carotid-pressure holds, similar to the technique that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used when he knelt on the neck of George Floyd in a fatal encounter on May 25, is also outlawed.

The legislation won the support from the state’s police chiefs and county sheriffs’ organizations, which said in a joint written statement that many of the policies contained in the new law are already in place at the local level.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized qualified immunity 50 years ago to protect government officials from frivolous lawsuits. Attorneys representing police have said the doctrine ensures officers can make split-second decisions in dangerous situations without worrying about being sued later.

Critics have said the doctrine too often lets police brutality go unpunished. The high court this week declined to hear several cases challenging qualified immunity assertions on behalf of police.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman and Michael Perry)